Thursday, July 9, 2009

the future of portable gaming

worldofthefuturecover-1 Nintendo and Sony, those titans of portable gaming, are doing a pretty okay job. Nintendo has created a well-loved and versatile juggernaut in its DS, and Sony has made a solid if directionless dent in Nintendo’s marketshare with its well-intentioned PSP. But where does handheld gaming go from here?

To find the answer to this question, you have to look at companies with little interest in competing with the DS and PSP: Microsoft and Apple. If the lackluster DSi refresh and the interesting-but-certainly-inconsequential PSP Go! are any indication, these two companies are content to rest on their laurels – both platforms are right around their fifth birthdays, and despite persistent rumors Our Benefactors in Japan don’t seem to be interested in updating their handhelds in any significant ways. The third and most recent of the Big Three, Microsoft, seems totally uninterested in creating a handheld gaming platform, but I think a lot of the ideas that have made their Xbox platform such a success could go a long way in the portable space. By the same token, Apple seems uninterested in positioning the iPod Touch and the iPhone against the DS and the PSP, but that platform also strongly informs the future of handhelds.

The first and most obvious innovation is Internet integration, which the iPhone and the Xbox 360 have firmly established – it’s hard to believe, but Sony and Nintendo have had years to challenge Live and haven’t yet managed success.

This failure to compete has bled into their handheld products – the DS is only peripherally aware of the Internet, and while the DSi takes steps to correct this I don’t know that DSiWare has yet proven itself in the eyes of gamers. Sony, despite being very close to releasing a handheld which relies exclusively on the Internet for all its content, hasn’t made as strong a case with the PSP as they might have. Full PlayStation network connectivity was added only recently and the interface is still clunky, and their Web browser doesn’t have anything on the iPhone. Trophy support remains elusive. I like the PSP’s Internet connectivity features, I just wish there were more.

An ideal handheld would steal from Microsoft their Xbox Live integration – Achievements, messages, chats, and Live Parties across platforms, and full access to the game and video content of the Xbox Live Marketplace. From Apple, you’d want to take an excellent and fully-functional Web browser, productivity apps to go with your games, and perhaps the ability to connect to their Internet via cell phone networks. The ubiquity of the Internet is key to the iPhone as a platform, and if Nintendo and Sony teamed up with phone companies to offer some sort of data plan, my bet is that there would be interested parties.

Another page to steal from the Apple playbook is, of course, multi-touch – this is different from the DS’s touch screen, which can only interpret one touch at a time. I’m honestly surprised that no one has tried this before now. There was some speculation that the DSi might include multi-touch functionality, though that was ultimately unfounded, and the PSP’s large screen and awkward typing interface are just begging for a good touchscreen to fix all their problems. With the next version of Windows and the Mac OS both touting touchscreen-centric control schemes, the inclusion of multi-touch in the next generation of handhelds is a no-brainer.

User-interface improvements are also a must. Never has it been more evident that Sony and Nintendo are not software companies. The Wii and the DS are usable but Spartan, and Sony’s XMB is a good start but throws things together into groups that sometimes do not make sense. The Xbox 360’s New Xbox Experience is a slick and coherent user interface that gets you where you need to go while also cramming in the requisite extra content and advertisements. The iPhone’s strengths are its ease-of-use and customization. The ability to move different icons around as I’d like sounds simple, so why can I only do this on my iPod?

I like my DS and I like my PSP. They both provide good game experiences and, largely, they’ve both been accepted by gamers. This is no reason to keep churning out mediocre refreshes, though – user interfaces and Internet connectivity have defined this generation of consoles, and those factors are only going to become more important as time goes on. It’s time for your Game Boy to catch up.